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An Early Look at the Nexus Q from a Developer's Perspective

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  1. What Is the Nexus Q? / What Can Users Do with the Nexus Q?
  2. What Can Developers Do with the Nexus Q? / Google Responds to Feedback
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Have you joined the queue for the Nexus Q? Just what the heck is it, anyway? Google has been giving away the devices by the thousands, but as yet the Nexus Q seems to be in the middle of an identity crisis. Shane Conder and Lauren Darcey, authors of Android Wireless Application Development Volume I: Android Essentials, 3rd Edition and Android Wireless Application Development, Volume II: Advanced Topics, Third Edition, try to make this little device's uses a bit less murky.

The Nexus Q is a fascinating and perplexing device. Announced at Google I/O 2012 and handed out to thousands of attendees, this device has received a lot of attention despite not being publicly available at the time of this writing—and, as announced when we finished writing this article, likely not going to be available for some time. What's so special about the Nexus Q? What can users do with it? When can developers do with it? Read on!

What Is the Nexus Q?

On the hardware side, the Nexus Q is simple to describe: It's a black sphere (see Figure 1) with ports for USB, HDMI, and speakers through its amplifier. Half the sphere can be used to control volume, with a convenient "tap to mute" functionality. The internals are similar to those of contemporary high-end smartphones. That is, the Nexus Q has a dual-core ARM processor and a small amount of memory, and it runs Android 4.0.

The Google Nexus Q

The Nexus Q has been compared to many other devices. For example, it's compared to the Apple TV because it can connect to the TV via HDMI out, and it's limited to playing content from specific sources (in this case, Google Play). Supported Google content includes movie and TV rentals and purchases, music purchases, personal music uploads, and YouTube videos. While this option is similar to that of the original Apple TVs, it's more limiting than the current ones. However, that doesn't address how the Nexus Q is controlled and who can use it, which is fairly unique. It also doesn't cover the fact that the Nexus Q can be used without a TV and has a built-in speaker amp to be used as an audio player.

The Nexus Q is also compared to Google TV devices. They also run Android, so that comparison makes sense. But the Nexus Q doesn't run apps; it's really designed solely for audio and video content.

The Nexus Q is also compared to a variety of other media streaming devices, some that also have speaker amps, others with fairly limited content sources, and still others with equally high price tags. (While price is important to consumers, we're going to avoid judging the device based solely on price. If it's priced to sell lower quantities or priced to denote premium quality, then it's probably priced about right, anyway.)

So what exactly is the Nexus Q? Is it an audio player? A modern receiver of sorts? A media player for the TV? A hacker/developer toy? All are good possibilities. As we'll show in the next section, we feel that the device's closest kin may actually be the jukebox. Think about that while you read what users can do with it. If you agree or disagree, let us know!

What Can Users Do with the Nexus Q?

At this time, users can set up the Nexus Q for two purposes. In the first case, the user can connect the Nexus Q to a TV via HDMI. The marketing materials recommend that you use your best TV. (Another nod toward the device being high quality.) In this use case, the device can play music and video. Another way to use the Nexus Q is to connect it directly to two speakers and use its built-in speaker amplifier. The marketing materials recommend that these be the best speakers in your house—again, a nod toward quality and the Nexus Q being a high-end high-fidelity device.

Once the Nexus Q is connected, the interesting part begins. The Nexus Q comes with no keyboard, mouse, or remote control devices. Instead, users can tap their NFC-equipped phone (or go to Google Play and search for the Nexus Q app) to be directed to the appropriate download on Google Play. Our understanding is that once the app is installed, Bluetooth is then used to pass information about Wi-Fi access, and the device then connects and uses Wi-Fi from that point.

With your phone and the Nexus Q connected via the Nexus Q application residing on your phone, several applications running on your phone have a new option to switch their playback to the Nexus Q from the phone (or other supported Android device). YouTube, Play Music, and Play Movies & TV are included in the list of supported apps for interacting with the Nexus Q. What's interesting about this handoff between the local device and the Nexus Q is that no streaming takes place between the local device and the Nexus Q. Instead, the Nexus Q picks up from the media source where the device left off. This approach frees up the local device and saves networking resources—especially wireless resources. (Streaming content from one wireless device to another doubles the amount of data going over the air, versus streaming from a remote source. If you connect the Nexus Q to Ethernet, no wireless resources would be used for streaming the content.)

One feature of the Nexus Q that we really like is its easy "sharability." Anyone can come over, pair their Android device with the Nexus Q, and then play their Google Play content—movies they own or have rented, music they've uploaded, and so on— through your Nexus Q. The device handles all the licensing issues. If your friends can play the content on their devices, they can also play that content through your Nexus Q. Have 10 friends, each of which rented one movie for a movie weekend sprint? No problem!

In fact, that possibility hints at the next feature: The Nexus "Q" name is less of a play on James Bond and more of a play on the word queue. Each person connected to the Nexus Q can add content to the queue. Everyone connected can see the queue, change the queue, and even interrupt the queue with their own picks. Chaos or fun? Who knows! It's a true "battle of the bands." What we do know is that bringing over a movie to watch, bringing a "mix tape" or playlist, or sharing your new favorite TV show or music is quite simple with the Nexus Q setup.

Sure, you could use your headphone cable to connect to your friend's stereo, an HDMI cable to connect to someone else's TV, and many other solutions. None are quite so elegant, though. And imagine if your favorite bar installed a Nexus Q as a jukebox? Anyone could play their music. Sure, this might lead to bar brawls, what with the Nexus Q's current inability to block modifications of the queue, but what you have is a truly modern jukebox controlled by modern devices. How cool is that?

Here's the perplexing part about the Nexus Q's usefulness, though: Aside from the speaker amplifier, all of these features could easily be reproduced by using a simple Android app that would enable any Android device to act as a Q-style device. In our household, we use an old phone in one room to play music and radio streams (such as NPR) from a variety of different sources. Perhaps an app will eventually be released that could turn any device into a Nexus Q endpoint? Then it might also be more clear that the Nexus Q itself is meant to be a hi-fi device, rather than a competitor to the more capable Google TV devices. If that's actually the intention, of course.

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